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Darwin and philosophy

Updated Thursday, 19th March 2009

Derek Matravers of The Open University's Philosophy Department, considers how Darwin's thought gave a boost to Hume's ideas and how Darwinian thought relates to ethical philosophy.

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So people like Richard Dawkins took it upon themselves to explain altruism and ethics through natural evolutionary processes. And, even though Dawkins himself explicitly says that this doesn’t in any way undermine ethics, word got out. It’s an easy misunderstanding to make to think "oh well, if altruism develops through the selfishness of our genes, to use Dawkins’ very interesting phrase …"

So Dawkins’ idea was that human beings just carry this genetic material around, and the genetic material - and this is a kind of misleading metaphor - wants to preserve itself, and this in some way manifests itself in the way human beings behave to each other.

And his claim was that human behaviour, human ethical behaviour, the way we interact with each other, is explained by this natural evolutionary process of genes preserving themselves. And that led people to think that there wasn’t really such a thing as ethics, that really, we were all just behaving selfishly the whole time, that ethics could be reduced, if you like, or replaced by this thought of selfish evolutionary behaviour.

That’s just a mistake because there is an evolutionary explanation for everything, but that doesn’t tell us what ethics and morality tells us, which is what we should do. There's an evolutionary explanation for why we have, why I have big feet. There's some explanation for why I have big feet. That doesn’t show anything about why I ought to have big feet, or should have big feet, or it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I have big feet; it’s just an explanation of why I do have big feet.

So similarly, this apparent conflict in philosophy between evolution and philosophical explanations, and the evolutionary explanations seem to undermine the philosophical explanations.

There’s something that a certain strand of philosophical thought has been trying to teach us and I think the greatest mind in the strand of thought will be David Hume, who was an 18th Century Scottish philosopher. And Hume’s, one of Hume’s key thoughts was that there's - to put it in a way that he wouldn’t have put it - that there's nothing special about human beings, that human beings are part of the animal kingdom.

Prior to that, various people had thought, "well human beings have souls, animals don’t have souls, human beings have reason, animals don’t have reason," and Hume didn’t deny that we had reason, he just didn’t think that reason was up to much. He thought it was a kind of unreliable… He would have preferred habit and instinct and other things which we share with the animals.

And then Darwin, in a way, really gave that whole line of thought a huge boost because, if Darwin’s right - and Darwin’s books support things like the expression of emotion in human and other animals, and things like that, so Darwin didn’t… The Darwinian theory, and to some extent Darwin himself, thought that what he was showing was that human beings are just part and parcel of the natural kingdom.

And I think that’s a lesson which you might find pessimistic, or you might find optimistic. You might find it difficult to come to terms with, or you might find it a kind of relief, easy to come to terms with, but that’s still something that’s, I think, being played out in human thought.

You can’t prove the theory of evolution, that the theory of evolution is just a theory, and of course that’s right, it is just a theory. But theories are there to explain phenomena and, if you want to get rid of the evolutionary theory, then you have to replace it by a better theory; a theory that accounts for the evidence; that’s as coherent, that’s as well argued. And there just… in my view there just isn't one. So the claim that, in some way, evolution is not… that we shouldn’t accept evolution because it’s just a theory, is not a very good thought because - it would be a good a thought if there were a better theory but, given that there's no theory which is anywhere near it, then it’s the theory that we should hold onto to explain the evidence.

Darwin's influence

Darwin's influence was felt widely. Open University experts share how he helped shaped their disciplines.





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